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'Self-sufficient' Iran importing wheat for seventh year in a row.

Seven years ago, the Islamic Republic proclaimed that the country was self-sufficient in wheat and would no longer need to import it. The next year, it resumed importing wheat. Just three months ago, the government again proclaimed that the country was self-sufficient in wheat and would actually be exporting huge quantities this year. Now, the United Nations reports that Iran has been importing wheat all this year and, in fact, is importing even more than it did last year.

Back in August, Agriculture Minister Sadeq Khalilian announced that the country was doing so well in wheat production that it would be able to export as much as 2 million tons of wheat this year, according to a report in the Jam-e Jam daily.

On Monday, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) issued a report on world wheat production. It said Iran produced 13.5 million tons this year, the same as last year.

The report's tables then contradicted Khalilian, saying Iran imported 1.3 million tons of wheat this year, up from 1.2 million tons last year.

Even with those imports, Iran's wheat reserves dropped from 3 million tons in 2010 to just 2.1 million tons currently.

Iran has been importing wheat in most years over the last half-century. Three decades ago the revolutionaries condemned the regime of the Shah for importing wheat and allowing foreigners to throttle Iran because of its dependency. But there have now been more years of wheat imports under the revolutionary regime than under the monarchy. In November 2004, President Mohammad Khatami announced that Iran had finally returned to self-sufficiency in wheat, accomplishing a major ideological goal of the revolution.


He also said, "Self-reliance in the global wheat market, which Westerners dominate, serves Iran's national security and interests." He did not explain how the Islamic Republic had ever been forced to its knees by its many years of dependence on imports.

But self-sufficiency has been an ideological touchstone of the revolution. State television announced that Iran's wheat production in 2004 reached a record 14 million tons. Still, Iran has had to import wheat in all but one year since then.

Four years ago this month, a previous agriculture minister said the Ahmadi-nejad's Administration's drive to make Iran self-sufficient in wheat was cutting the production of potatoes and other foods, driving up their prices and actually requiring more imports.

The Ahmadi-nejad Administration has made a sacred grail of the campaign for autarky or self-sufficiency in all foodstuffs. It argues that unless Iran is self-sufficient, the rest of the world could throttle the Islamic Republic and starve the Iranian people by halting food sales.

But Issa Kalantari, who was agriculture minister under President Khatami, said in November 2007 that Ahmadi-nejad's "obsessive" drive for autarky was self-defeating. He said that as more and more land has been diverted to wheat cultivation, the production of cattle feed, cotton, potatoes and grains has suffered, sending prices higher and requiring more imports of those goods.

Mansur Bitaraf, an agricultural economist, told the Financial Times Deutschland, "This [wheat] self-sufficiency drive has been at the cost of other products, like barley, which has lost lands to wheat production. This has indirect impacts on other foods like red meat, because barley is also used as cattle feed." The FAO said Monday that Iran imported 400,000 tons of barley this year, the same as last year.

While the self-sufficiency drive began many years ago and is an ideological lodestar for the revolutionary regime, the Financial Times Deutschland said previous administrations "appeared to be pursuing the policy grudgingly" in recognition of the dangers.

But in the Ahmadi-nejad Administration that has changed and the Agriculture Ministry is set at full speed ahead on autarky--and not just in wheat.

In 2006, Agriculture Minister Mohammad-Reza Eskandari said Iran would become self-sufficient in red meat in 2006, in barley in 2007, in maize and rice by 2009, in sugar by 2010, in vegetable oils by 2011. None of that has happened.

Iran first said it reached self-sufficiency in wheat, the country's main staple, in 2004. But imports actually resumed, albeit initially at a low levels, in 2005 and have continued in every year since then. In 2009, Iran was the world's largest importer of wheat with 8.9 million tons brought in.

In January 2006, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenehi pressed farm leaders to make Iran self-sufficient in all foods so the Islamic Republic is not subject to pressure from "bullies."

"Today, when our country is the subject of ill will and vindictiveness from the bullies of the world, ... the country needs to have food security--for its bread, for its daily food, for its cooking oil, for its meat--not to be dependent on other countries, not to be dependent on those who can demand its honor in exchange for these goods."

Khamenehi said that under the Shah other countries, unnamed, tried to make Iran dependent on them for food in order to have markets for their wheat and other products.

Many agricultural specialists say self-sufficiency in most agricultural fields is not even a reasonable goal for Iran given its frequent droughts and erratic climatic conditions. Economists almost universally scoff at autarky as an economic principal discredited centuries ago. They stress inter-dependence with countries exporting those goods for which they have a natural advantage and importing those goods for which others have a natural advantage.

The United States barred all exports to Iran, including food briefly, in the mid-1990s, but soon lifted the food ban. As a practical matter, economists say food embargoes are meaningless because too many countries produce food for export; if Country A stops wheat sales to Country Z, then Countries B thru J will swiftly line up to supply Country Z, so that Khamenehi's horrific vision is not a serious threat. But despite that, autarky has a popular appeal with citizens in many countries--including the United States, although officials in the United States do not advocate autarky and just brush off its vocal advocates.
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Title Annotation:Economy: Money and its impact
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Nov 18, 2011
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